“I can't think of long melodies like Mozart. I only ever manage short themes. But the thing that I understand is how to turn those themes, to paraphrase them, to extract everything from them that sits within and I believe that makes me ahead of anyone today.” So speaks the brilliant composer in The World of Yesterday, by Richard Strauss’ famous librettist Stefan Zweig. You couldn’t have expressed it better than Strauss himself. Elsewhere, Stefan Zweig comments on this unconditional self-criticism with great respect: “I have met many great artists in my life, but not one who knew how to turn such abstract and unwavering objectivity against himself.”

Die schweigsame Frau (“The silent woman”), one of Richard Strauss’s last operas, was performed on September 25th at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Although (or perhaps because) this comic opera really does not approach the quality of composition of Salome, Elektra or Der Rosenkavalier, it is extremely demanding for all the artists involved. Strauss’ musical ideas are seldom merely pleasant, never shallow and always requiring the highest levels of artistic concentration. Such concentration was clearly present as much in the orchestral musicians as it was in the assembled singers who were spot on in extracting as much as possible from the music and narrative material, to the delight of the audience. “Concentration” was also the theme of the staging concept from Barrie Kosky, the Australian Artistic Director of the Komische Oper in Berlin. As if he wanted to create a counterpoint to Richard Strauss’ music that only rarely offers the listener complete musical arcs and phrases and instead continually hurries from one brilliant idea to the next, Kosky reduced the stage to a large platform in the middle of the hall.

The challenge which this self-imposed straitjacket presented for both direction of the actors and the lighting was the starting point for many creative ideas; often, the highest level of creativity results from the overcoming of obstacles and boundaries. To give just one example: at the beginning of Act III, the platform was pulled upwards much like a suspension bridge, while at the same time gold coins rained down onto Sir Morosus and Timidia on the platform. At the end of the screamingly funny wedding scene, hence after the divorce of the unwilling couple, the platform was simply lowered back into its previous position and everything went back to its initial state, much to the delight of the aged Morosus. With all these subtleties and ideas which never fell into coarseness, the direction added in one amusing reference to today’s mass TV (un)culture not out of the frame. As seen in “Germany’s next top model”, the three prospective brides are led forward by Schneidebart, each carrying a photo and a small portfolio, in front of Morosus, who then, as we all know, selects the disguised Aminta to be his wife.

Franz Hawlata performed the role of Sir Morosus masterfully, with the full weight of his experience. Hawlata portrayed this figure as sophisticated as it simply is. Actually, Morosus is not just a strange old man, rather, he is a man who sometimes is depressive and self-critical, who has been through a lot in his life. It didn’t matter that Hawlata’s voice sometimes had a sharp metallic edge, because in every other respect, he showed full mastery both vocally and in acting. His housekeeper was played by Okka von der Damerau, who has been a steady member of the Munich State Opera company since 2010, and not without reason. She was thoroughly convincing with a solid portrayal of the irritable, snappish maid, never putting herself too far in the foreground, but allowing her short solo passages to display a wonderfully full mezzo voice. The barber Schneidebart was played by the Belarussian Nikolai Borchev. He thrilled the audience with a wonderful display of singing, liberally laced with comic acting and a clearly enunciated parlando. Schneidebart’s role is as essential for the narrative flow of this libretto as that of the Evangelist in [Bach’s] oratorios. Borchev met these demands to perfection and thereby earned loud cheers and applause.

A similar reception was awarded to tenor Daniel Behle, playing the Captain’s nephew Henry Morosus in a way that was wonderfully life-affirming and sly while also warm hearted. This was helped by a smooth, lyric Tenor voice with a well crafted flexibility that marks him out as a true Lieder singer. Brenda Rae was a fantastic Aminta, vocally and dramatically stunning in her self-control. You always felt that a volcano was waiting to erupt right up to the final point of the wedding night and the final divorce scene: Sir Morosus is not the only one being left speechless. The remaining singers were uniformly convincing, making the evening into a completely successful example of all round operatic art, in which the musicians of the Bavarian State Orchestra, superbly led by Madrid’s Pedro Halffter, also played an important role.

Translated from German by David Karlin